There's Something about Mary (United States, 1998)
The Farrelly Brothers' first two films, Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, were outrageous, uncouth, bawdy, and unapologetically lowbrow. Their third film, There's Something about Mary, is all of those things and one more: hilarious. I rarely chuckled during Dumb and Dumber or Kingpin (and laughed aloud less frequently) -- the so-called "comedy" in those films frequently missed the mark. Not so in There's Something about Mary, which occasionally had me convulsed with laughter. It's not enough for a motion picture to employ gross- out humor; it has to do it successfully (timing and reaction shots are important). That's one crucial difference between Chris Farley and Monty Python. And it's the key distinguishing factor that separates the Farrelly Brothers' first two films from this one.
In his 1996 review of Kingpin, film critic Roger Ebert wrote: "No doubt the movie is vulgar, and tries too hard for some of its laughs; I am reminded of Mel Brooks' defense of The Producers ('This movie rises below vulgarity'). Some of the gags don't work, and yet I laughed at the Farrellys' audacity in trying them." Two years later, I still don't agree with Ebert about Kingpin, but those words provide an apt description of There's Something about Mary. The Farrellys haven't changed their M.O. They've just become better at their craft.
When we first meet the narrator of the story, Ted (Ben Stiller), it's 1985 in the small town of Cumberland, Rhode Island. The occasion is Ted's Senior Prom, and he is about to attend it with Mary (Cameron Diaz), the girl of his dreams. Ted can't believe this is really happening, but Mary, after breaking up with a longtime boyfriend, took a liking to Ted when he stood up for her mentally handicapped brother, Warren (W. Earl Brown). Things are going along perfectly for Ted until he makes a pit stop in Mary's bathroom while she's upstairs changing. Failure to tuck himself in properly before zipping up leads to one of the film's most painful comedy sequences and ruins Ted's chance for a date with Mary.
Cut to 1998. Ted, now a moderately successful writer, still carries the torch for Mary. On the advice of his best friend, Dom (Chris Elliott), he hires Pat Healy (Matt Dillon), a sleazy private investigator, to track down Mary, who now lives in Florida. Pat finds and falls for his quarry, then lies to Ted about her whereabouts so he can pursue her on his own. But Ted, unconvinced by Pat's information, decides to check things out on his own, and soon finds himself in the middle of a bizarre romantic pentagon that also involves a British architect (Lee Evans) and a famous NFL quarterback (whose performance makes Dan Marino's in Ace Ventura look accomplished by comparison).
Perhaps the most surprising thing about There's Something about Mary is that, while the film relies heavily on crude humor, it's also unexpectedly effective as a sweet, albeit offbeat, romantic comedy. Granted, if you're not at least open to laughing at the kinds of gags that the Farrellys bombard their audience with (and I'm not going to list them here since comedies, like thrillers, work best when there's an element of surprise), it's doubtful that this aspect of the film will save it. But, for those who embrace the humor in all of its perversity, the effectiveness of the romance is a distinct plus.
One reason that There's Something about Mary works (when it could have easily flopped) is because the actors are all perfect for their chosen parts. With different casting, I could see how half the jokes might have fallen flat. Ben Stiller, who understands comedy, makes us like and sympathize with Ted while laughing at him. Matt Dillon, having fun playing against type (he is usually given the role of the brooding hero), proves that his comic performances in To Die For and In & Out weren't flukes. As the "straight man," Cameron Diaz, who always exudes screen presence, is more radiant than in anything since her screen debut (The Mask).
To be fair to the Farrellys, not every joke in this film centers on genitals, breasts, bodily fluids, or an assortment of other, tasteless subjects. One neutral bit I appreciated was the group of traveling minstrels who follow Ted around, singing about his exploits in Greek chorus fashion. This reminded me a little of a conceit in Keenan Ivory Wayans' I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, where the heroes all have musicians trailing after them, playing their individual theme songs. Granted, this isn't subtle or intellectual humor (two words that don't apply to any Farrelly Brothers production), but it is less earthy than their usual material.
Earlier in this review, I mentioned Monty Python. While the mostly-British troupe is probably best known for their cerebral comedy, they were actually quite fond of bathroom humor, and there's something in the Farrellys' brazen, let-it-all-hang-out approach that reminds me of the Pythons. (Scenes featuring a dog recall the not-dissimilar canine mistreatment in Python member John Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda.) The Farrellys could care less whether viewers are affronted by their material. In fact, they probably set out with the intention of offending at least 99% of the audience. This welcome unwillingness to capitulate with the rigid doctrines of political correctness can lead to duds like Kingpin and successes like There's Something about Mary. After three films, Bobby and Peter Farrelly have won me over. I haven't laughed this hard at any 1998 offering to-date.
There's Something about Mary (United States, 1998)
Cast: Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon, Chris Elliott, Lin Shaye, Lee Evans, W. Earl Brown
Screenplay: Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly
Cinematography: Mark Irwin
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox